What I Learned From My First NaNoWriMo

Hear that whooshing sound? Kind of like an Amtrak train speeding through the countryside? That was the month of November hurtling past in a blaze of turkey and pumpkin pie-filled glory.

November was also a month full of words–a little over 50,000, to be more precise–because wonder of wonders, I not only survived my first NaNoWriMo, I won. Honestly, I was just hoping to hit 25k. Even half of the required amount for the win would’ve felt like a victory. My project DUSK FOR DREAMS was only at about 6000 words on November 1, and I figured any progress I made would be a huge boost for that first draft. By November 30, when I cleared 56,000, I was amazed.

NaNo-2018-Winner-Badge

Eek, I did it!!

So now that the writing frenzy is over, I figure it’s time for a little reflection. What have I learned from this crazy experience?

Winning takes commitment

Dividing 50,000 words up over thirty days amounts to writing 1667 words each day. For you non-writers out there, that’s roughly five pages double-spaced in a Word document. That’d be about half of one of my typical chapters, and probably encompass one scene. On the surface of things, it might not even sound all that hard. Five pages of fiction? You’re just making stuff up, right?

Yes. And no. A lot of people don’t make it past day two, because they start making stuff up and then realize they have no idea where the story is going. No idea what to write next. Even if you have an outline, we all hit moments where we don’t know what to write. Those days, coming up with five pages feels worse than getting cavities drilled.

Even on a great day, when the words are flying off my fingertips, I still can’t get more than a thousand words or so in an hour. With all the interruptions at my house, hitting a 1667 word count goal means writing for two hours every day, at a minimum. I didn’t hit that goal every day. Some days I managed only 800 words. But there were days when the writing was good and the baby took a long nap (bless you, baby), and I cranked out over 2500 words.

Either way, though, I woke up each morning knowing I had to write something. I had to make time and space to open up my laptop and put fingers to the keys. On the hard days, it took some major commitment to make myself get to work. I had to sacrifice all that time I could’ve spent doing something else, like watching Christmas movies on Netflix or getting extra sleep.

But I had the goal in mind, and every day I was rewarded with entering the day’s word count on my chart, and seeing that line go up closer and closer to the goal. I may have only watched two movies all month, but cranking out nearly 200 pages of my draft was worth the trade off.

Writing is a whole lot easier when you know what you want to say

Maybe the above statement sounds self-evident, but let me explain. Usually when I sit down to write, unless it’s some free-writing exercise, I have a scene goal in mind. I typically have a large-scale outline for my story, which gives me at least a general idea of what needs to happen next. That idea takes the form of a simple goal or statement, like: Marielle’s sister gets sick, or Alder and Marielle find her grandmother.

When it comes to turning that one-liner into a scene, though, we’re talking about a whole different challenge. Not only do you need to get that main point across, you have to do it in a way that creates tension for the reader and conflict for the characters. They can’t just walk for five pages and poof, find the grandmother. Booooooring. Where’s the conflict? How will it build until the end of the scene, when the change happens that moves the story forward? How will the characters react, and what will they decide to do next?

No wonder the pressure of high daily word counts can crush a writer’s spirit. What I figured out, pretty early on, was that if I knew the answers to those questions, if I’d already envisioned the way the scene would play out, it would practically write itself. The problems came when either I had no idea, or I thought I knew, but hadn’t really dug in deep enough.

What worked to get the words flowing? Either doing something else while I thought about my scene some more (like catching up on folding that laundry mound the size of the Himalayas), or opening up my document and inserting a note to myself. I’d start by listing what needed to happen, any changes that might be needed in previous scenes, and then listing possible ideas. Sometimes, I’d have to pick one and power through, always knowing I could go back and fix it during revision.

NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone

Just because you elect not to participate, or you try and realize 50k is unreachable, doesn’t make you less of a writer. I’m delighted that I was able to reach such an amazing goal this year, but I’ve been writing for several years now and this is the first time I’ve participated.

It’s important to know who you are as a writer and whether the pressure of an event like this will help you or discourage you. As I think I’ve mentioned before, my Gallup Strengths test showed I rank high in the Achiever strength. Achieving hard goals gives me a huge energy boost and sense of satisfaction. And, I can work extremely hard to reach my goals without getting as tired as others might.

My little guy got sick over Thanksgiving, and despite his lack of interest in naps, or sleeping in general, I was still able to get in words each day. Writing came at the cost of some of my sleep, but both the writing itself and seeing my word count creep closer to my goal gave me the energy I needed to pull through.

For some people, it would be stressful and overwhelming instead. In fact, the same might be true for me at other times in my life. I try to remind other writers of this all the time–getting words on the page is what matters. Not how fast or how many or how your writing progress stacks up to anybody else’s.

Now it’s December, and even though I still need about 25,000 more words to finish DUSK FOR DREAMS, it’s time to set my draft aside and catch back up on the other things I’ve left waiting for the past month. I’ve got a romantic suspense to edit, reading to do for other writers, Christmas presents to buy, and cookies to bake. (And eat. Eating cookies is a very important part of my to-do list.) I probably won’t get that draft done in 2018, but I’m wildly excited to have made it as far as I did, and I wouldn’t have gotten here without the extra push of NaNoWriMo. So, while it isn’t for everyone, I’m very grateful it worked for me.

I hope you all are making great strides on your goals for the year, and looking forward to the joy of the Christmas season. Until next time, enjoy the journey!

Image credits: NaNoWriMo.com

4 thoughts on “What I Learned From My First NaNoWriMo

  1. Kellie, you were on my prayer list today so I was thrilled to see this post in my inbox. I’ve never attempted NaNoWriMo, but I enjoyed hearing about your experience and success! Here’s to finishing your novel (when the breakneck pace of Christmas slows) and to enjoying a respite after cranking out so many words. Merry early Christmas! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was my first year doing NaNo as well and I plan to do a similar post because I feel like I learned so much! I love how you mentioned that we all have different strengths and those strengths can affect whether certain writer activities make us feel stressed out or inspired!

    Liked by 1 person

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